HC Deb 27 July 1838 vol 44 cc729-37

On the question, that 10,000l. be granted to enable her Majesty to relieve the distressed Poles now in this country,

Viscount Sandon

wished to say a few words as to the amount of this grant. It would be remembered, that in 1836 it was first agreed to vote a sum of 10,000l. for the relief of the Poles. At that time the number in this country was somewhere about 400, and it was then intimated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the relief should be granted only to such Poles as were in the country at the time. Since that time the number of Poles in the country had, from various causes, increased—a considerable portion had been let loose by a neighbouring country on our shore, so that there were now 200 of those unfortunate individuals in the country who were totally excluded from Parliamentary relief. The frequent appeals to that charity, which, he was happy to say, was never inattentive, proved this, and all the idle amusement of the day had been called into requisition to assist in their relief. He thought it was unworthy of our generosity to leave this small number excluded from the benefits of the grant, which was not of sufficient amount to invite increased immigration. It was a remarkable fact, that in this, the dearest country in Europe, the grant had always been less than in France, at least to every rank above that of a private soldier. In Russia and Austria, also, the governments had been more liberal than ours. In fact, the English scale was the lowest in Europe. While England gave 10,000l., what had France done? To be sure, the Poles had perhaps, greater claims on France. The French Government was, he believed, more responsible than ours—he hoped ours had no share in the responsibility—for the revolution which had brought ruin on these unhappy men, and driven them exiles from their native land. But France had given 100,000l.—once 160,000l., but never less than 100,000l., and even the small canton of Berne had given 4,000l. He maintained, that our Government had not come forward in the manner becoming our character and resources. He knew, that the presence of destitute strangers was a consequence and disadvantage of our position on the map; but that position had also its advantages—such as our being the outport of Transatlantic communication, and the trade and commerce which that position gave us. While we enjoyed those advantages, we ought not to grumble at the inconveniences, or scruple to assist those whom misfortune had driven to our shores. We ought to recollect, also, how much we owed to the fact of having been at different periods the refuge of strangers who had become the victims of their opinions. In early times the Flemings introduced manufactures, and at a later period we had derived considerable advantage from the persecuted French, whom the edict of Nantes drove from their native country. In fact, the persecuted of all nations had, at different times, come to us for protection, and enriched us by their industry. The particular facts of the case he was now urging on the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer were these—200 men were now living from day to day on the precarious relief afforded by public charity; and it was with deep regret he saw many honourable and high-minded men reduced to such a dependence for subsistence. He did not like to see senators, members of the Diet, men distinguished in the annals of their native country for their conduct in the Council or in the field, reduced to such a state as to become the subjects of puffing advertisements, and obliged to resort to the voluntary services of foreign singers for existence. He did not mean to cast any blame on those persons who undertook the labour of the exhibitions to which he alluded; they, he felt convinced, were actuated by none but the highest and purest motives, but he thought that such means must, to high-minded men, be a most painful mode of existence. He would, therefore, entreat his right hon. Friend to do something for these poor men. Suppose he only added a sum of only half the amount now proposed, which he thought would not be enough to induce any others to come over for shares. It should be recollected, that in the French Chambers ministers had formerly stated their intention to send no more of those unhappy men to our shores. He hoped, therefore, that nothing would induce his right hon. Friend to withhold the small relief he had asked for from any apprehension of fresh arrivals—a thing which he could render ineffectual by stipulating that no Pole should receive relief out of the original grant who had not resided above a year in this country. He was in nowise personally interested in the Polish cause; he was merely moved by the fate of two hundred unhappy men, who had been driven from their own country, deprived of all the comforts of life, and cast helpless and destitute on our shores without any help save the casual charity of the day. They had made every effort to obtain food by their labour; on railroads and public works, Colonels and others of high rank might be found working as common labourers, but being strangers, speaking a strange language, and having few facilities of obtaining employment, the great majority were left to wander starving about the streets. In the police reports accounts would be found of Poles taken in the act of sleeping under our porticos and at our hall doors and such other places of shelter as chance threw in their way. The state of our finances might be urged as a reason for withholding present relief, but he did not think the right hon. Gentleman would give the national distress as a reason for refusing a grant of 5,000l. for so benevolent a purpose. Although our finances were not in the most flourishing state, grants were made for the support of the British Museum, and for other purposes connected with art and science; and while we were indulging in these luxuries, wholesome and beneficial luxuries he would admit, he did not think we should refrain from the higher luxury of assisting those unfortunate men in their present state of destitution. There was only one point more to which he would allude. Attempts had been made to prejudice the public mind against the Poles, by the fact of twenty or thirty misguided men having published placards and interfered at a late election. He did not mean to vindicate the conduct of those individuals, which all must concur in thinking highly improper; but surely that was no reason why 200 men, totally unconnected with that conduct, should be left to perish. He trusted, that however great and just might have been the irritation caused by this foolish conduct, that time sufficient had elapsed since its occurrence to erase it completely from the public mind. Under all these circumstances he trusted the right hon. Gentleman would consent to the enlargement of the grant.

Mr. O'Connell

said, that if the noble Lord had proposed a distinct vote, he (Mr. O'Connell) should have been exceedingly anxious to second him, but as that could not be done consistently with the usages of the House, he must only content himself with pressing on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to accede o the enlargement of the vote. The right hon. Gentleman, of course, ought to be as chary of the public money as of that of individuals; but he could tell the right hon. Gentleman, that there was no portion of that public which would not hear of the increased grant with gladness. They were assembled there to represent every grade and variety of public opinion, but he believed there was no man on either side unrestrained by official duty who would be afraid to answer to his constituents for voting in favour of this grant. The only objection that could be urged to the proposed increase was, that it would be creating an inconvenient precedent by encouraging exiles for political opinions. Why the last century afforded several preceof that kind, and was Poland—the land to which the poet alluded in the bautiful lines— Sarmatia fell unwept without a crime. and which lines, although poetical, were strictly true—Poland that fell a victim to the crimes and perfidy of others—was she to be excluded from relief? Neither need they look to the past as affording motives for making this grant. The future was pregnant with prospects which made it expedient that we should have Poland and the Poles on our side. From Gibraltar to the Persian Gulf events were approaching which made the alliance of a brave people a thing not to be despised. If we now refused this paltry sum of 5,000l., we should lose all the gratitude we had acquired by former grants. He did not wish to enter further into the matter, or to trench on disputable points. The present was not a disputable point—it was one that called for the exercise of one of our highest virtues—that of charity; and, if the grant did form a precedent, it was one of wisdom and generosity, and one that would be hailed with acclaim in every corner of the British empire.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that there never was a more painful duty imposed on an individual Member, than that of bringing back the House from the impulses of generosity and compassion to the considerations of right and of justice. He had, however, one cause for rejoicing, and that was, that he was not now called on to defend the withholding of the grant altogether. The question, he was happy to say, was not one of principle but of degree; and he was also rejoiced to say, that he now, for the fifth time, had had the honour of proposing the grant. Now, the point to which he wished to call the attention of the House, and which had been alluded to by his noble Friend, was, that when the grant was first solicited from Government the gentlemen who consulted Earl Spencer on the subject undertook that the extent of relief required should be for the Poles at that period actually in the country. They not only consented to this stipulation, but stated their determination themselves to resist any attempt at infraction. He did not wish to press this point more than it deserved; but he had a right to make the House acquainted with facts—facts which an hon. Gentleman present could attest. This was in 1834. Afterwards, in consequence of the events at Cracow, new calamities overtook the Poles, and a new class became exiles from their native land, and although these formed no part in the stipulation, the Government overlooked the fact and relieved them. The vote had not been decreased from its original amount, notwithstanding that the natural course of things must have greatly diminished the number of claimants; but the balance had been applied to the relief of the Cracow exiles. Among those who wished to leave the country, and who came recommended by the association, were given the entire sum allowed for one year's subsistence to assist them in emigration. From emigration and other causes the original number had greatly decreased. It was at first 485, but, in 1835, 116 emigrated. This, of course, caused a great reduction, and the whole balance was applied to the assistance of the rest. He did not wish to take any merit to himself in this transaction, he was merely the distributor of the national benevolence; but he defied any man to say, that he had not carried into effect the declaration of Parliament; or that, if he had committed any fault, it was on the side of generosity. What was it they were now called upon to do? Were they prepared to commence an interminable system of grants? No matter what brought political exiles here. Were they to pledge the country to provide for their wants? It was but justice, however, to say, that the unfortunate men deserved our warmest sympathy. No men could have acted with more prudence, more honesty, or more resignation than they had since their arrival in this country. Indeed, their valour in the field was only exceeded by their resignation under misfortunes. Therefore, it was not any want of sympathy that induced him to oppose the increase; but, because he knew, that if in 1838 they went beyond the principle originally proposed, they would not know where to stop. He would remind the House, too, of what had been the course with men who had much stronger claims on us than the Poles—he meant the Spanish exiles, the companions in arms of the Duke of Wellington, and who had fought side by side with our own soldiers. The grant for their relief, which in 1833 was 12,000l., in 1837 was only 3,000l.; in this case, although the same cause had been in operation, he did not call for any reduction, but merely opposed increasing it to 15,000l. There had been one observation made in passing, to which he would only give a passing reply. Allusion was made to the political objects to be served in assisting the Poles. He could only say, that he disclaimed any such feeling, and that whether the grant was 10,000l. or a greater amount, he wished it to be understood as given from motives of generosity, and without a view to any political consequences whatever. In conclusion, he must say that, having consulted his colleagues on the subject, it was his painful duty to rest contented with the grant as it now stood.

Sir Stratford Canning

observed, that as the French Government had given positive assurances that there should be no further attempts to send the Poles out of that country, he thought the present was an occasion on which the national benevolence might be safely exercised. He must express his concurrence in the sentiments of his noble Friend, and his satisfaction at hearing the tribute to the good conduct of the Poles, which the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer had so well expressed.

Mr. Briscoe

mourned for the decision to which the right hon. Gentleman had come, because he thought the reputation of the country was involved in it. He had listened with the utmost attention to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, and he heard nothing in it to justify our withholding relief from those who were peri hing in our streets. This was no party or political question, but one of need and destitution—a destitution of the extent of which the House was most probably not aware. He had taken some pains to ascertain the facts, and he found the actual number excluded from participation in the grant to be 189. Of these seventeen were field officers—126 officers, and thirty-six soldiers, and ten the wives and children of soldiers. This was the exact number of persons who were depending on the casual bounty of the public, and of these some had been many days without food. The increase asked was a mere trifle. The apprehension of an increase of the grant being likely to induce more Poles to come to this country was groundless, more especially after the declaration of the French Minister, when he stated, that it was not the intention of the present government to send more Poles into England. This country, therefore, might, without danger, give free scope to its generosity. It was, in his opinion, a mistaken economy to refuse so small an addition to the grant. He would rather see the 5,000l. deducted from the expense of the coronation than refused on such an occasion as the present. We ought not to suffer those brave and much-enduring men, who fled from tyranny to our shores, to find there not an asylum, but a grave.

Mr. Dennison

thought, that when the cause in which these men suffered, was considered—when the depth of their misery and the resignation with which they endured it was borne in mind—there could be no stronger grounds for a liberal grant of money than those which their claims possessed upon the sympathies of a generous public. He trusted, that the finances of the country were not so low as to render a refusal of the increase to this grant necessary. He hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer would see the propriety of acceding to the proposition.

Sir Francis Burdett

would not do justice to his own feelings, if he did not cordially support the increase of this grant. He felt, that he could add nothing in favour of the proposition to the excellent observations made by the hon. and learned Member for Dublin, of whom it would always give him greater pleasure to speak in terms of praise than censure. In the injury that had been done to the high-minded and generous Poles, a blow had been stricken at all civilised Europe. They should not forget the hint which had been thrown out by the hon. and learned Member for Dublin, namely, that it was an ennobling and a stirring sight—a sight calculated to excite a worthy emulation in every generous mind—to see these brave men still clinging to the cause of their prostrate country, even in her utmost desolation. A time might arrive when it might be necessary for us to adopt a course in which the co-operation of these brave men might be desirable. With respect to the increase to the grant, he was sure that the House would be unanimous in consenting to it.

Sir R. Inglis

said, that when he considered the state of the Poles—some of them refugees in England, some exiles in Siberia, and some of them strangers in their own home—he was happy to think, that England was no party to that revolt which reduced them to that condition, and was in no degree chargeable with any share in the injustice which blotted Poland as a country out of the map of Europe. England ought to be the asylum of the oppressed of every nation, and she would be found so. When the smallness of the sum was taken into consideration, and when he saw that all those who differed so widely upon other subjects were almost unanimous upon this, he did not think the additional grant would be refused. It was called for, not only by humanity, but by justice, being only a tardy discharge of the debt due by us for the assistance which Poland formerly rendered to England in 1650. Even though the grant should form a precedent, he did not think there would be any objection to its future adoption.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

ad- mitted, that the sympathy of the House was in favour of the vote, and it was a sympathy which he would, by no means, endeavour to suppress. What he feared, however, in yielding to the influence of such sympathy was, that there might be in future, an indefinite increase made in votes of this nature. With respect to the opinion of his hon. Friend, the Member for Middlesex, the hon. Gentleman should remember, that he himself, when this question was, on a former occasion, brought forward by Lord Dudley Stuart, objected to too great an outlay of public money. He would by no means say anything calculated to prejudice the cause of the Polish refugees; and he felt, that the general unanimity of the House was a matter for the serious consideration of the public. In pursuing the course which he did pursue, he was but discharging an arduous and painful duty. He hoped the House would give him credit for the motives with which he acted, for he felt, in his position, that in the disposal of the public money, he ought not to be actuated by any feeling as to the popularity of the claim; but whether the disposal of it in a particular way was or was not for the benefit of the public.

Viscount Sandon

said, that after what had fallen from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the promise given that the matter should be taken into consideration, he should withdraw his amendment.

Mr. T. Attwood

represented a large community, and was sure, that not a pauper in Birmingham would oppose the increase of the grant.

Original vote agreed to.